Living with Water seminar

Living with Water. Decolonizing approaches to environmental justice.
Viviendo con Agua. Enfoques descolonizadores hacia la justicia ambiental
19 June 2023, Center for Research and Practice in Cultural Continuity,
Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, and Zoom:

Organizers of the event: Stanisław Kordasiewicz & Justyna Olko

Co-organizing Partners: Americas Research Network and Recovering Voices, Smithsonian Institution



The increase in environmental rights legislation worldwide (e.g. in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Aotearoa New Zealand, United States, Mexico, Canada, as well as many initiatives within the EU) demonstrates the importance and urgent need to improve and bring to a more equitable co-existence the current relations between humans and nature, which are behind many local ecological disasters and the global climate crisis.

However, the implementation of new legal initiatives and practical results often fall short of their initial goal. In many Indigenous Communities and among the rights of nature movement, a prominent place is reserved for water in oceans, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. It is the local Native knowledge, developed, enriched, applied and transmitted for
centuries, that offers powerful tools and environmentally sensitive solutions to the current challenges faced by humanity.

During the seminar, we would like to discuss the historical and contemporary aspects of living with water and balanced forms of water management in Indigenous
/ local communities, focusing mainly on decolonizing approaches to environmental justice
General themes will include:
• River Rights – lessons learned and perspectives for the Future
• Traditional Ecological Knowledge and water management
• Indigenous Communities and their struggles for environmental justice
• Solutions for more balanced and equitable relationships between
humans and nature in the context of water rights and different
forms of diversity

Download the short program: Living with water. Viviendo con Agua. Seminar Program. 19 June 2023

The program includes three different time zone indications in the following order:

Poland [CEST] / USA [EDT] / Mexico [CST]

Starting times for each time zone: 16:00/ 10:00 / 8:00

Concluding session times:  20:00 / 14:00 / 12:00

Living with water – program, abstracts and bios

16:00 / 10:00 / 8:00     Decolonising a river: The story of Te Awa Tupua. Miriama Cribb

There is now a large body of scholarly literature available on the legal and governance arrangements of the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017, which often distracts from other unspoken, yet equally important elements. This presentation draws attention to the emancipation of Te Awa Tupua through three particular processes. They are the act of restoring Indigenous traditional knowledge. Secondly is decolonisation and the importance of unlearning current practices. Thirdly, is the persecution of change by the community of Whanganui. This hopes to bring a concluding discussion on the willingness to dream and the potential of the Whanganui story to bring a more balanced and equitable relationship between people and nature.

Miriama Cribb is currently a PhD student at Massey University looking at the implementation of the Te Awa Tupua Act in non-Māori organisations. She is also a part-time researcher at Te Atawhai o Te Ao, a health and environment independent research institute in Whanganui. A former trustee of Ngā Tāngata Tiaki, the governance entity for the Whanganui River settlement, Miriama has held various governance positions within the tribe. A descendent born and bred in Whanganui, Miriama remains active at a local level through her involvement with her hapū (sub-tribes) of Whanganui.


16:20 / 10:20 / 8:20     Ama: Cherokee Water is Life. Thomas N. Belt, H. Ph.D., Tom Hatley, Ph.D. Lisa J. Lefler, Ph.D.

The Healing Powers of Water in Cherokee Culture (short video):

Thomas N. Belt, H. Ph.D. is the retired coordinator of Western Carolina University’s program in Cherokee language. Tom is a nationally recognized scholar regarding Cherokee language, health, and culture.  He is a consulting scholar for the American Philosophical Society’s Center for American Indian Research in Philadelphia and a consultant to the Center for Native Health in North Carolina.  Tom received the Community Leadership Individual Award presented by the Cherokee Nation, given to recognize citizens who have tirelessly given, without hesitation, their time to make their communities more vibrant livable places. He has co-authored many articles and book chapters and has presented at many universities across the country including Stanford, Yale, Duke, and Purdue. Tom is co-founder of WCU’s annual Rooted in the Mountains Symposium.

Tom Hatley, Ph.D. is the author of The Dividing Paths (Oxford) and co-author of Powhatan’s Mantle (Nebraska) and Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale (Himal Press and James Martin Institute at Oxford).  He has led and to consult on landscape conservation, conflict resolution, and sustainable development projects for over 40 years.  He also served as the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor in Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University.  Tom lives in Asheville NC.

Lisa J. Lefler, Ph.D. is a medical and applied anthropologist and full teaching professor at Western Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.  She is Director of the Culturally Based Native Health Programs and is the founder and past Executive Director of the Center for Native Health, Inc.  She is also a faculty member in the Cherokee Studies Program at WCU, serves on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Cultural IRB, and is co-founder of the annual Rooted in the Mountains Symposium at WCU, which integrates Traditional Knowledge with health and environmental issues.  Her most recent publication, co-authored with Cherokee elder and first language speaker, Dr. Tom Belt is entitled Sounds of Tohi: Cherokee Health and Well Being in Southern Appalachia (2022) from the University of Alabama Press. Her current research focuses on Native science preserved by Indigenous language and the connection between Cherokee matrilineality and community health. She has worked with Indigenous communities for more than 30 years.


16:40 / 10:40 / 8:40     K’ya k’okshi means “Good Water”: Working for Zuni Sovereignty and Water Rights in New Mexico. Curtis Quam, Presley Haskie

Curtis Quam: A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Zuni, New Mexico

Presley Haskie: Zuni Cultural Religious Advisory Team, Zuni, New Mexico


17:00 / 11:00 / 9:00     Environmental justice and access to water in the region of the volcano Matlalcueye/Malintzin, Tlaxcala, Mexico. A longue durée perspective. Prof. Justyna Olko

Challenges with securing natural resources permeate the history of Indigenous communities right from the first encounters with Europeans as in addition to many forms of colonial exploitation they also faced the harsh circumstances of climatic anomalies and progressive environmental degradation. My focus in this paper is the conflict between the Otomi community of Ixtenco and the people of Huamantla regarding access to spring water on the slopes of Matlalcueye that arose in 1761 and continued until at least 1780. The case provides insights into the long history of the use of the sacred mountain’s natural resources by the two towns: Huamantla, which became strongly Hispanized, and Ixtenco, which has remained largely Indigenous. The documents reveal conflicting interests and pressures linked to environmental and socioeconomic challenges as well as the importance of traditional knowledge for the sustainable existence of the local communities. Matlacueye/Malintzin continues to be crucial for the resilience of the local ecologies: July 5 of 2017 witnessed the formal resolution of another, but closely related dispute between the two towns regarding the land and sources of water that began officially 98 years earlier. In fact, it has persisted for centuries in a fragile ecological equilibrium. Applying the longue durée approach to microhistory, my goal is to highlight the complex, but traceable interplays between the human’s and nature’s agency in deeply intertwined social and environmental-climatic processes.

Justyna Olko is professor in the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” at the University of Warsaw and director of its Center for Research and Practice in Cultural Continuity. She specializes in Indigenous and ethnic minority history, sociolinguistics, multilingualism, language endangerment and revitalization as well as decolonizing research practices, with a special focus on Nahua language and culture. Author of Insignia of Rank in the Nahua World (University Press of Colorado, 2014), co-editor and co-author of Dialogue with Europe, Dialogue with the Past. Colonial Nahua and Quechua Elites in Their Own Words (University Press of Colorado & University of Utah, 2018), co-author of Loans in Colonial and Modern Nahuatl. A Contextual Dictionary (Mouton de Gruyter, 2020), and co-editor (with Julia Sallabank) and co-author of Revitalizing Endangered Languages. A Practical Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2021). A recipient of Starting and Consolidator Grants from the European Research Council (Europe and America in Contact, 2012-2017; Consolidator Grant: Multilingual worlds – neglected histories, 2022-2027). Justyna Olko was a member of the Polish National Science Center Council (2018-2022) and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (2013), as well as a Burgen Fellowship by the Academia Europaea (2013). In 2020 she became a winner of the Falling Walls Science Breakthrough of the Year in social sciences and humanities for “Breaking the walls between Academy and local communities in favour of linguistic diversity”. More information at


17:20 / 11:20 / 9:20     Tepagui: traditional environmental knowledge in historical struggles for environmental justice in northwestern New Spain. Prof. Cynthia Radding

Decolonizing approaches to environmental justice requires building strong linkages between contemporary struggles for environmental justice and the social memory of community actions in the past. This contribution to the seminar brings the eighteenth -century legal case documented by the pueblo of Tepagui in the headwaters of the Mayo river basin, Sonora, Mexico, to defend their water rights, into present -day debates over TEK, water management, and the defense of territory.

Dr. Cynthia Radding is the Gussenhoven Distinguished Professor of History and Latin American Studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her scholarship is rooted in the imperial borderlands of the Spanish and Portuguese American empires, emphasizing the role of indigenous peoples and other colonized groups in shaping those borderlands, transforming their landscapes, and producing colonial societies. She is an international corresponding member of the Academia Mexicana de Historia; she served as book review editor of Hispanic American Historical Review and on the Editorial Boards of American Historical Review, Hispanic American Historical Review, and The Americas. Radding is President of the Board of Directors of the Americas Research Network, and co-editor of the Borderlands of the Iberian World with Danna Levin Rojo, an Oxford University Press Handbook (2019). Her publications include Landscapes of Power and Identity. Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic, 2005 (published in Spanish 2005, 2008); Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers (Northwestern Mexico, 1700-1850), 1997 (published in Spanish, 2016); Borderlands in World History, co-edited with Chad Bryant and Paul Readman (2014); and Bountiful Deserts: Sustaining Indigenous Worlds in Northern New Spain (2022).


17:40 / 11:40 / 9:40     Tribu Yaqui v. Mexico: Human Rights case for Environmental Justice. Prof. Octaviana Trujillo

Octaviana V. Trujillo (Yaqui), Ph.D., is founding chair and professor emerita in the department of Applied Indigenous Studies at Northern Arizona University. She is advisory board member to Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras, the mission is to affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples, their right to self-determination, their collective human and civil rights, the rights of sovereignty and the protection of sacred sites, and the free unrestricted movement across international border. Dr. Trujillo also has served as an active national member of the American Friends Service Committee and Farmworker Justice, working to foster community-based resources for promoting social justice. A primary focus of her work now has been developing programs that provide the use of her academic and human rights advocacy training to Indigenous communities regionally and globally. Dr. Trujillo’s international experience includes the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, EPA Governmental Advisory Committee, which helps to shape U.S. policies intended to improve environmental and health conditions of the United States, Canada, and Mexico and Global Diversity Foundation which promotes agricultural, biological and cultural diversity around the world through research, training and social action. She was appointed by President Obama to serve as a member to the Joint Public Advisory Committee for the governing Council of the trilateral North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation.


18:00 / 12:00 / 10:00 Coffe break


18:20 / 12:20 / 10:20     Ve’e Savi: Houses of Rain, sacred places for the People of the Rain. Omar Aguilar Sánchez, Ph.D.

The Ve’e Savi “Houses of Rain” are pillars of Mesoamerican religion. These are scattered throughout the territory of Ñuu Savi (The People of the Rain) and are considered sacred, mainly for being providers of life, where the “Rain God” dwells and the water is present almost all the time. In this presentation, I want to emphasize how the Ñuu Savi People take care of its Ve’e Savi, where the communities periodically go to ask the Rain God to manifest in the fields, for the sustenance and life of humanity on this earthly plane.

Omar Aguilar Sánchez is a Mixtec researcher from Oaxaca, Mexico. He has a PhD from Leiden University, the Netherlands and is an archeologist graduated from the Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico. He focuses on the study and understanding of the historical and cultural heritage of the people of Ñuu Savi (People of the Rain or Mixtec People), with a special focus on the Mixtec pictorial manuscripts. He won the 2016 INAH Award, the National Youth Award in 2019 and the 2021 INAH Award for his doctoral dissertation. He conceptualized and co-created the app Códices Mixtecos. He is co-founder of the Colectivo Nchivi Ñuu Savi (People of the Community of the Rain) and director of the digital project Mixtec Codices and Cultural-Historical Heritage of Ñuu Savi. Furthermore, he is a member of the project COLING, a fellow of The Americas Research Network (ARENET), member founder of the Universidad Autónoma Comunal de Oaxaca (UACO) and a member of the National System of Researchers of México.


18:40 / 12:40 / 10:40     The Treasure More Precious Than Gold: Indigenous Water Activism from the Seventeenth Century to the Present in the Central Mexican                                                                                 Highlands. Cody Joseph Love

In Central Mexico, indigenous communities have always found innovative ways to harness water for communal benefit. When the Spanish arrived, they dismantled or heavily modified both the hydraulic landscape and the social practices around water distribution. Indigenous communities adapted, using the Spanish legal system, informal alliances, and outright violence to defend their traditional water resources. Today, indigenous communities continue to face threats to their water from multinational corporations and a government willing to violently enforce corporate water consumption against indigenous activists. This presentation reveals historical continuities that inform the current nationwide struggle for indigenous water sovereignty in Mexico.

Cody J. Love is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research uncovers the long history of hydraulic resource modification and management in Central Mexico’s highlands, especially in terms of how indigenous communities express and enforce their sovereignty over water against outside interests. He is also interested in using historical narrative to support contemporary activist efforts in Mexico.


19:00 / 13:00 / 11:00     The Oder River as a legal person. The first campaign in Poland to recognize a river as a legal person. Robert Rient

Science and law with shamanism and spirituality, which is not a religion. How does the narrative affect the climate crisis and how to change awareness to change the law? A story about the first initiative in Poland to recognize a river as a legal person and a great march for the Oder, which went from its source to its estuary. 44 days. 937 kilometers. Hundreds of people.

Robert Rient – writer, journalist, shaman, president of the Shamanism Foundation. Initiator of recognizing the Oder River as a legal person. Author of such books as “Visions of Plants, or fifty medicinal plants and one mushroom”, “Glimmer. Around the world – around yourself”, the reportage “Witness” and the novel “Ghosts of Jeremiego”. Author of the “Quiet Love” podcast. [„Wizje Roślin, czyli pięćdziesiąt roślin leczniczych i jeden grzyb”, „Przebłysk. Dookoła świata – dookoła siebie”, reportażu „Świadek” i powieści „Duchy Jeremiego”. Autor podcastu „Spokojna Miłość”]


19:20 / 13:20 / 11:20     Justicia ambiental y megaproyectos: los casos de Cholula y Sierra Negra en Puebla. Dr. Laura Romero

Dr. Laura Romero, Directora Departamento Antropología UDLAP. She holds a degree in ethnohistory in 2001. Since 2002, she has been conducting her fieldwork in the Nahua zone of the Sierra Negra of Puebla, focusing her research in this area. In 2003, she pursued a master’s degree in Estudios Mesoamericanos at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras of the UNAM, where she received the prestigious Fray Bernardino de Sahagún National Award for her outstanding thesis in social anthropology and ethnology. She later obtained her Ph.D. in anthropology from the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas of the UNAM in 2011, becoming a member of the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores.

Laura’s academic accomplishments extend beyond her degrees. She was awarded the scholarship for Women in Social Sciences and Humanities by the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Science Advisory Council of Mexico’s Presidency in 2014. From 2015 to 2020, she led a project funded by CONACYT that aimed to explore indigenous disability categories, specifically focusing on Nahua children in the Sierra Negra of Puebla. This research aimed to shed light on the implications of these categories for the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Mexican State.

Laura’s commitment to justice led her to embark on a project focused on documenting the situation of the indigenous population deprived of liberty in the state of Puebla. This project marked a new chapter in her academic career. Additionally, she has authored three books and coordinated two others, while also contributing numerous book chapters and academic articles. She has supervised over twenty theses, demonstrating her dedication to mentorship and scholarly guidance.

19:40 / 13:40 / 11:40     Defensa de derechos indígenas y generación de alternativas en la planeación del territorio de San Andrés Cholula. Juan Carlos Flores Solís

Juan Carlos Flores Solís. Licenciado en Derecho por medio de universidad abierta, terminando sus estudios en el Penal de San Pedro Cholula al ser injustamente encarcelado 10 meses por la defensa del territorio de los pueblos del volcán Popocatépetl frente al Proyecto Integral Morelos.

Maestro en Derecho Constitucional y Amparo de la Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP), graduado con honores por su tesis sobre derechos de los pueblos indígenas frente a megaproyectos.

Integrante y abogado del Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra y Agua Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala (FPDTA-MPT) y Cholultecas Unidos en Resistencia. Así como del Congreso Nacional Indígena.

Promotor de radio y comunicación indígena en los estados de Puebla y Morelos contribuyó a lograr la primera concesión de uso social indigena en México y contribuyó a la fundación de 3 radios comunitarias en estos 2 estados.

La Asamblea Nacional de Abogados Democráticos (ANAD) le otorgó en 2014 la Medalla Nacional de Emilio Krieger de Derechos Humanos, y la organización internacional Front Line Defenders lo nominó como finalista del Premio Internacional de Derechos Humanos Front Line Defenders 2015. En 2020 se le otorga un premio del Colegio Abogacía en Biskaia, el cual no se pudo entregar por motivos de la pandemia.

Actualmente litiga diversos juicios de amparo en favor de derechos indígenas y ambientales de pueblos de Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Jalisco, Querétaro y Oaxaca.


20:00 / 14:00 / 12:00     Living with water – a legal revolution in progress. Concluding session. Stanisław Kordasiewicz

Stanisław Kordasiewicz, Ph.D., coordinator of the COLING project. He is a legal historian and researcher at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” at the University of Warsaw. His research interest focuses on Indigenous rights, minority rights, language rights, and their intersection with nature’s rights. He recently wrote a chapter (forthcoming in 2024) entitled “ ‘I AM THE RIVER, AND THE RIVER IS ME’ “ Re-naming and re-shaping legal categories to enhance relationships between individuals, communities, and rivers” with the following abstract: “This chapter analyzes the process of re-naming and re-shaping fundamental legal categories from a historical and comparative perspective. It presents the Roman roots of treating rivers as objects of exploitation and discusses the pioneering alternative – the recognition of the Whanganui River as a legal person. The first section explores the historical context of modern regulations related to rivers. The second part introduces the complex topic of water rights in Aotearoa New Zealand. The third section focuses on the Te Awa Tupua Act, identifying its potential and risks. The conclusions advocate for adopting a legal personality model for other rivers”.








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